Divya Gugnani Cooks Up a Start-Up

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Divya Gugnani Goes Behind the Burner


Divya Gugnani with Todd English

Divya Gugnani with Todd English

Tired of your desk job and longing to take on the world? Love food and want to follow your culinary dreams? Yes, it can be done. Take a page or two from the game plan of Divya Gugnani, a New Yorker who chucked her day job to create her own nascent start-up, Behind the Burner.

Gugnani went from crunching figures in a corporate office to wandering the vineyards of the world, and hobnobbing with chefs and sommeliers.

She was recently named a 2010 Game Changer by New York Enterprise Report and was among the 50 Outstanding Asian Americans in Business. She also made it into Time’s list of Indian Spice Girls, with a neat little caricature showing her with other foodie movers and shakers.

Thumbing her nose at the economy, Gugnani has taken the financial bull by the horns, chucking up her job as a successful venture capitalist to create her own start-up. A graduate of Cornell University and the French Culinary Institute, with an MBA from Harvard Business School, she’s followed her own master menu, selecting the ingredients she wants in her life and career.

Divya Gugnani of Behind the Burner

Divya Gugnani of Behind the Burner

At a time when consumers are taking a detour from fancy restaurants, she brings famous chefs like Daniel Boulud and Todd English into their kitchens via her show where they cook, chat and share their secrets about how to whip up five star dishes at home.

It’s a site for culinary enthusiasts and membership, which is free, gets you food, nutrition and mixology content, videos and also a chance to purchase gourmet ingredients, cook books and wine at discounted prices.

A diehard gourmand since childhood, Gugnani has found the way to make her passion into her vocation.  Her family, she recalls, was obsessed with food: “At breakfast they discussed lunch. At lunch they planned dinner and after dinner we marinated our minds overnight to go through our food rituals all over again!”

Her earliest food memories are of watching her grandmother prepare feasts for the family – every meal had a choice of eight dishes, multiple sides, and her grandma’s famous barfis and kheer. Recalls Gugnani:  “She was always the glue that held our family together and the meals we shared together are the fondest memories of my childhood. Amiji taught me that food is an expression of love and caring but also an art which requires a combination of hard work and talent.”

Gugnani, who had a successful career on Wall Street as an investment banking analyst and later advised start-ups in a venture capital firm,  never thought in her wildest dreams that she’d be turning to the kitchen for a full-time career.

She says, “I cooked to express my creativity, to experiment and most of all, to relax. Cooking is a form of therapy for me after a long hectic day.”

Scallops at Daniel

Scallops at Daniel

During her career in finance, over a decade of crunching numbers and building businesses, she treated cooking as the release valve to let out the steam of her pressure cooker career.

“I went to culinary school at the French Culinary Institute while working at Goldman Sachs and also catered and apprenticed in kitchens to further develop my culinary skills,” she recalls. “The chefs, bartenders, sommeliers, and restaurateurs I worked with changed the way I thought about food and beverages. It was a true education to both work in the field – and also be a guest on an expense account!”

Was it a tough decision to give up the corporate world for her new career? She says, “I wish I could say that I actively decided to shift my career from a technology venture capitalist to a media entrepreneur but I didn’t. It just happened.”

“After telling my boss about my idea, I needed to pull the trigger, but didn’t. He told me, ‘You just have to take the training wheels off and go do it. What’s the worst case scenario? You fail and go back to being a venture capitalist.’”

Behind the Burner is not yet two years old, yet she’s managed to create a buzz, getting noted chefs and experts to come on board. “We currently have over 450 culinary experts in our network, with a vast majority of them being chefs,” she says. “It was critical for us to get key tastemakers involved such as Todd English, Marcus Samuelsson, Daniel Boulud, and Wolfgang Puck, and then we started getting a flood of inbound inquiries to be a part of our experts.”

The company is a culinary media brand that creates content for food and beverage enthusiasts. It has a network of culinary experts, particularly celebrity chefs, mixologists, sommeliers and nutritionists, and showcases their best tips and techniques in the form of short videos, articles and blogs, along with deals on the tools and ingredients that the experts recommend. The company has several revenue streams, getting a percentage of the tools and ingredients sold on BehindtheBurner.com, as well as product placements and sponsorship revenues from liquor brands, vineyards, and restaurants that get featured in the advertorial content

Gradually Gugnani has built up the brand and The Behind the Burner videos are syndicated to TV (NBC New York Nonstop) and over 50 online video sites such as Bravotv.com, YouTube, Dailymotion, MySpace, Howcast and 5min, with some premium placements. She also contributes to NBC’s The Today’s Weekend Show, The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, among others.

Bryant Park Lobster Salad

Bryant Park Lobster Salad

By now, Gugnani has filmed hundreds of episodes and has become such a pro that she even ends up giving her own tips to the celebrity chefs who come on her show!  “I’ve learned a few insider secrets along the way,” she says. “I’m a messenger sharing my knowledge with both our viewers and the other experts I collaborate with for the show.”

There’s no typical day as she chases food stories and chefs and new products. “I can assure you that I’m not in the office at 9 am!” she laughs. “I’m a night owl and work late nights so my mornings are spent working out and boiling eggs before I get to the office.”

Her days are spent in meetings, on location filming for the show which is shot in cities across the US, in working with the video and technology teams. She adds, “I try to remember to drink lots of water and eat meals in between. I’m big on multitasking and often have two computer screens up while I’m on speaker phone at the same time!”

With her gregarious nature, Gugnani is the face of the company but has a small, solid team of professionals who are driven too. She says, “We are a motley crue in terms of ages, interests, and backgrounds but our love for all things culinary is the thread that holds us together. We have a work-hard-play-hard environment that everyone enjoys. Our offices are filled with wine and food samples so we never go hungry or thirsty!”

The svelte CEO admits that she’s always juggling ten pounds. “I love to eat and I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t try everything put in front of me,” she says. “Food is an adventure and I want to experience it to the fullest. Working with Behind the Burner nutritionists I’ve learned to cut down my portions and opt for lean proteins while reducing my sugar and starch intake.”  She shares her favorite tips for having a healthy relationship with food in her upcoming book Sexy Women Eat: Love Food and Look Fabulous.

Gugnani is a firm believer in the power of social networking and programs like Twitter to promote the business.  She points out that every startup is on a lean budget trying to build its brand and audience, so she leverages social media like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter to create a following for culinary content and deals.

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She’s  built up a following on Twitter (@dgugnani also @behindtheburner) by sharing advice, information and anecdotes regarding building a small business, getting financing, and of course, cooking and drinking. She says, “There’s a lot to be learned from the tech savvy community on Twitter. I love sharing ideas and stories with them.”

Gugnani doesn’t divulge figures or statistics about the company which is privately held but says traffic on Behind the Burner has grown organically without any money being spent on it.

What’s been the best part of Behind the Burner and where does she plan to take it?   “The bonus is that it blends my passion for company building with culinary arts,” says this hardcore entrepreneur. “I wake up each day and I am excited to go to work. I’m thrilled about filming with new members of our expert network, learning new tips, tricks and techniques and signing new distribution deals to spread the reach of our content.”

She admits that every day presents new challenges and when she overcomes them she feels a genuine high. While the show is on several outlets, it is now also on Apple devices via the Behind the Burner iTunes podcast.  “I’d like to build our reach with a national TV show,” she says.

As her company grows, her role is constantly changing and evolving. “The key to running a successful business is being flexible,” says Divya, who has advised startups.  “Our team constantly evolves and our roles have shifted with time.” While she is very much involved in the day-to-day aspects of running the company from the production of the videos to technology changes, she says:  “As much as I enjoy appearing on television, I love my days in the office in jeans, a ponytail, tank top and chappals, running our staff meetings.”

Leaving the gilded corporate world, a hefty salary and all the perks for a dream is always risky but, based on the high octane level of her own adventures, Divya Gugnani says, go for it!

“I believe the greatest learning comes from pushing oneself beyond the comfort zone,” she says. “I had a PowerPoint deck and an idea and I turned it into a company. It has been a labor of love but also a very big risk. Sometimes you have to take the training wheels off and just go for it. Worst case, you fail, but in the end even failure results in lessons learned.”

Branzino e Lenticchie at Via dei Mille

Branzino e Lenticchie at Via dei Mille

Divya-Speak

Most Expensive Dish: Kobe beef in Tokyo

Trending foods: American Classics reinvented – gourmet hamburgers, truffle mac and cheese, anything shareable. Small plates are all the rage

Most opulent kitchen buy: Kitchen Aid – and worth every penny! From making sausage to mixing cake batter, it can’t be beat.

Favorite Luxury Ingredient: Truffles. They add a nutty/earth flavor to pastas, risotto and just about everything else.

Favorite Tip for the home bartender:

Chill your cocktail glasses before serving drinks. Use a mix of ice and water in each glass

Favorite Tip for the wine enthusiast:

Have enough ice! No more ice, no more party.

Store your wine away from heat, light and vibration. Find a cool dry place that is away from any direct sunlight. The cabinet above your refrigerator is the worst place to put wine.

Wine Tips for Dining Out:

When you are talking to a Sommelier at a restaurant:
1. Give your price range. It’s our most important piece of information.
2. Be specific about your wine likes or dislikes.
3. Ask for labels from wines that you love, so you can remember them in the future.

(C) Lavina Melwani

(This article first appeared in Hi Blitz magazine)

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About Author

Lavina Melwani is a New York-based journalist who writes for several international publications. [email protected] & @lassiwithlavina Sign up for the free newsletter to get your dose of Lassi!

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